Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Animal rights #4: on bestiality

(This post continues the previous animal rights discussion: 1, 2 and 3.)

Steve Edwards (The Raving Wingnut) extends the logic of animals having no rights to reach the following conclusion:
“There are, of course, far more disturbing ramifications from my line of argument, but being a guy who generally feels an obligation to argue things through and countenance the inevitable implications of his logic, I shall have no choice but to admit the following: due to my reasoning, there can be no legal prohibitions on bestiality!
One should recognise firstly that Steve is not arguing against extending consideration to animals. Indeed, I believe it is impossible for him to argue against affording animals some consideration as living beings.1 It would be the social equivalent of arguing that the Earth is flat, or that paedophilia should be encouraged.2 What he rightly argues is that animals have no a priori rights, nor can they be given rights (because animals cannot take on any accompanying responsibility).

Secondly, we should note that it is not entirely relevant to this discussion that bestiality is despicable. What is of main concern is the harm to the animal.3 This is a logical conclusion of my contention that it is impossible to argue against extending consideration to animals. To focus only on bestiality would be to become a member of the ‘moral police’. If legislation is needed to realise the common sense view that animal abuse is wrong then that legislation should be exclusively focused on preventing harm to the animal. Whether a ban is needed is more of an empirical question, and goes back to what happens when you legalise any previously illegal activity (you can now regulate it). Personally, I don’t think a ban is needed, for reasons I will outline in a later post.

While bestiality shouldn’t be the main issue, we do need to justify picking on bestiality in the first place. After all, couldn’t killing animals for food be said to be a form of abuse? There are a couple of reasons which I will elaborate on in my next post. For now let’s just say bestiality is less useful to society than meat-eating or other ways in which we use animals (eg. laboratory experiments). I freely admit there is a moral element to this discussion.

The issue is how best to achieve an accepted goal

Steve implicitly recognises two things by saying:
“So basically, if you want to torture your own dog to death for fun I'll call you a sick freak, but I'm afraid I cannot think of any particularly compelling reason to ban this kind of cruelty in itself.”
By calling an animal abuser a ‘sick freak’ Steve firstly indicates he is not prepared to argue that torture of animals, or bestiality for that matter, is a perfectly normal and acceptable activity. That is his admission bestiality is wrong. Second, and more importantly, his statement implicitly tells us that he does consider it ‘cruelty’ to torture an animal to death. What this means is he recognises that it is cruelty and therefore harm occurs. This is relevant to the second point I have made above (about disregarding the bestiality element and focussing on the harm to the animal).

Despite there being no logically justifiable position for animals having ‘rights’ (a position I agree with), Steve’s description of ‘cruelty’ tells us he, like every decent person on this planet, does not think animals are so beneath regard that they should be afforded no consideration whatsoever, even if they are private property. That is the hidden premise in his statement, and in all debate over animal welfare. Would he describe it as ‘cruelty’ if it were an inanimate object? I think not.

Why it’s impossible for Steve to argue 'against'

That animals should be afforded some consideration is a matter of common sense. The issue is how best to achieve this undeniable goal, and what competing interests need to be balanced. Steve’s own human nature tells him there’s something wrong. Either that, or he is not prepared to go on record as supporting bestiality even though there is no logical way to reach the conclusion that animal abuse is bad (since animals have no rights). The position opposed to affording some basic consideration to animals is an unarguable one, hence the frustration expressed in Steve’s second statement above. For elaboration on this line of argument, I would refer interested readers to Brian Scarlett's work.

A common logical problem?

Similar philosophical frustration occurs in formal logic. This is the problem with having a hidden, unarguable, premise. As an example4 take the argument:

The Prime Minister collects clocks.
Anyone who collects clocks has to be slightly mad.
Therefore, someone is slightly mad.

Here one can identify a couple of hidden premises.

1. You can’t be a Prime Minister without being a citizen (Sue v Hill tells us that much).
2. So the Prime Minister is a citizen.
3. If the Prime Minister is a citizen, then he’s a person (because you can’t be a citizen without being a person).

Even in these propositions I’ve made some hidden assumptions. For example, I’ve assumed the Prime Minister is a Member of Parliament. Everyone agrees with that. It’s an unarguable position. In philosophical logic hidden premises (which everyone agrees with, and which when added to the premises of an argument will render the argument valid) are dealt with by adding propositions known as enthymemes. Without going into all the symbolic mumbo jumbo, the basic point is that hidden, unarguable, premises need to be factored into discussions such as this. I think this is the best way to analyse this dilemma. If I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will smack me down accordingly.

[1] Two points: Firstly, I’m talking about humans abusing animals, not animals abusing other animals. The fact that we are superior beings allows us to have this discussion and change our response to undesirable behaviour. We can’t stop animals from sexually abusing other animals for fun. Second, I’m mostly referring to bigger beings. It would be quite difficult to abuse smaller beings such as termites, ants or snails, and few people own them. More common are farm animals such as horses.

[2] A more complex issue which I raised with Steve earlier is whether consensual cannibalism should be legalised.

[3] This is the main concern. You cannot argue against this position in today’s society. The very fact that Steve and I are writing articles on animal welfare indicates we care enough.

[4] Taken from Greg Restall's book on Logic.


At September 22, 2006 11:20 pm, Anonymous Rob said...

What it comes down to, Sukrit, is that some blokes prefer goats.

At September 22, 2006 11:42 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

Very disturbing, very scary, and makes me wonder about my libertarian perspective... still, an interesting exercise.

At September 24, 2006 12:11 am, Blogger Justin Jefferson said...

I think Singer is a dreadful fascist but the point about any policy to do with animals is of course is that if it's not okay to be violent to animals, why should violence to humans be somehow more acceptable? The whole notion depends on a superstition that what the state does, does not involve coercion. But of course if that is the case, then there's no need for any policy, is there?

Singer is just calling for arbitary power over other human beings. What about rights for mosquitos? What about rights for vegetables? And rocks? Implicit in his argument is that, so long as *he* satisfies himself that he has superior wisdom and a grand plan, he is justified in using violence against others.

I have read his book aspiring to a world government which would need to abolish all aspects of human freedom in the name of 'the environment'. Singer is a repulsive totalitarian.

At September 24, 2006 7:23 pm, Blogger skepticlawyer said...

I was talking about the goats, Justin.

At September 26, 2006 7:54 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the BBC article:

"They said I should not take him to the police, but rather let him pay a dowry for my goat because he used it as his wife," Mr Alifi told the newspaper.

There ya go. Extend full property rights over animals and people will make voluntary transactions. This guy was willing to give up his goat for $50.

Now what would happen if bestiality was legal?

Could a legal public industry centred around the prostitution of animals ever succeed?

Consent of the animal would be a real issue in such a situation, though - incentives wise - if the 'pimps' (for want of a better word) are to escape mass public outcry they would need to ensure the animals were not harmed in any significant way, right?

At October 02, 2006 8:05 pm, Blogger Steve Edwards said...

Thanks for your considerate article.

Although I certainly do think an animal abuser is a sick freak, that does not in itself constitute an admission of harm - for example, I also happen to believe that somebody who masturbates with the assistance of a cheese grater or who indulges in sexual intercourse with a piano (if you'll pardon me going into such rank detail) is a sick freak, but that doesn't seem to violate the Harm Principle.

At October 23, 2006 2:46 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Animals should have rights. Yes, God gave us dominion over all creatures, however, that in itself is not a free pass to harm animals. Consider the puppy that was doused in gasoline and set on fire, squealing his way through an agonizing death, if that doesn't deserve rights for animals then what you say and what others say, is disgusting.

At October 23, 2006 5:01 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog has moved - please post all comments at the relevant post on the new blog at

Comments will be shut down on this site in due course.


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